As they filed into Faneuil Hall a few days ago for the beginning of a year of community service, some of the eighth-graders found themselves in an unfamiliar world: Boston.
They were the new “youth ambassadors” — one eighth-grader selected from each city and town in the state — for a statewide community service organization called Project 351. It teaches young people to be leaders in their communities, and the day in Boston was the beginning of an intensive program of activism.
They had arrived by buses and by ferry. Some had, indeed, never been to Boston before. But after an introductory session featuring Governor Charlie Baker, they were fanning out across the city, getting to know one anther and working on their initial service projects, volunteering at such venues as the Pine Street Inn.
Their day ended with a reception at the John F. Kennedy Library, where they got a inspirational speech from Bill Richard, the father of Boston Marathon martyr Martin Richard and one of the program’s major supporters.
The ambassadors gather as a group twice a year — once in Boston and once in Foxborough — but the real work in their year of service is done back home, where they seek to become leaders for good.
The 7-year-old program is the brainchild of dynamo Carolyn Casey, a recovering political operative who has spent years channeling her idealism into youth service programs.
Casey sees the program as a way for young people to begin to think about their role in the world. By design, each new class of volunteers starts during Martin Luther King holiday weekend. King, and his famous notion of “the beloved community,” is a major inspiration for the program.
Project 351 was originally conceived as a one-day program, tied to the second inauguration of Governor Deval Patrick. But it quickly became clear that there was room to think bigger, and it grew into a year-round effort. The students — nominated by educators in their communities — guide locally based service projects, in addition to attending the programs at Faneuil Hall and Gillette Stadium, where an annual event in the spring honors the memory of Martin Richard. The boy, 8, was killed in the bombing.
Project 351 is supported by private philanthropy, receiving no state or federal funding. The Martin Richard Foundation is a significant donor; in turn, its adolescent volunteers have raised $30,000 for the park in the Seaport District that will be dedicated to Martin’s memory.
Denise Richard said both organizations are committed to the mission of nurturing young people.
“I love the notion of empowering kids to be change-makers and leaders,” she said. “One of our goals as a foundation is building bridges in the community, empowering kids to choose kindness, and realize the results they can get when they do so.”
Another priority of Project 351 is to create a family of alumni — to keep in touch with young people as they go through high school and beyond. Over 2,000 youth have completed the program, and many serve as mentors to those who have followed them. They are also encouraged to continue to find ways to be active in their communities.
Emily Cuff, of Medway, who was an ambassador in 2014, said she has gone on to start a diversity council at Medway. She describes herself as an “agent of change” at Medway High.
One way to describe the mission of Project 351 would be to say it encourages youth to become part of something larger than themselves. That is a message that is hard to convey in a classroom, but one that can have lasting resonance.
“You’re taking these kids and you’re planting a seed — you’re cultivating leadership, compassion, and empathy,” Denise Richard said. “This is a way to embrace that ‘beloved community’ that Dr. King talked about so long ago.”Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.